ERIN, Wis. – Hey! Ron Whitten, Dana Fry and Mike Hurdzan built this great golf course in Wisconsin. Let’s go and hack at it!
That’s not my loudmouth, lunkhead golf buddies and I talking; it’s the brightest stars of the professional tours. A remarkably benign Erin Hills surrendered record numbers of birdies to every Tom, Dick and Harry (or in this case, every Brooks, Jamie and Si Woo), but Rory, Jason and Dustin are going home as empty handed as Spaulding Smails.
They have plenty of illustrious company. None of the top 18 names on the leader board at this, the halfway point of the 117th U.S. Open, have won a major. Two Englishmen, Paul Casey and Tommy Fleetwood, are joined at 7-under 135 by two Americans, Brooks Koepka and Brian Harman. Two of those names are at least remotely familiar to golf fans, the other two you’d have trouble picking out of a line-up of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Moreover, the logjam of 42 players within six shots of the lead includes only three major champions. Masters champion Sergio Garcia and two-time major winner Martin Kaymer are four back at 3-under 141, while four-time major winner Ernie Els is five back at 2-under.
The list of those headed home, however, reads like an all-star team. World Nos. 1, 2 and 3 are all gone with a combined score of 19 over.
Jason Day accounted for more than half of that. He was 10 over.
"I was in the hay too much over the last couple of days," he observed. "Actually the stats yesterday, I think I hit like 12 greens, but I made two triples amongst that. Short game, I made zero of six up-and-downs."
Hitting it in the hay killed Rory McIlroy, too, ironically enough. He castigated Kevin Na pre-tournament, boasting that “if you can’t hit a fairway 60 yards wide, you should pack your bags.”
He hit five of 14 fairways Thursday en route to a 78. His 1-under 71 yesterday wasn’t enough to save him.
“I showed up for six holes anyway,” he lamented. Then he made another headscratching comment, far less likely to prove as prophetic as his crack about missing fairways badly and going home early. He said, “I think it’s going to produce a really good winner at the end of the week."
How is Erin Hills going to produce a great winner at the end of the week? One fan summed it up perfectly when she shouted at her boyfriend, “Everyone is under par, except the guys I’ve heard of!” Look which Open winners are already gone besides Rory: Dustin Johnson (+4), Graeme McDowell (+5), Angel Cabrera (+5), Lucas Glover (+2) and Justin Rose (+2).
They are all former U.S. Open winners within the last 10 years, including the defending champion.
I’ll take a breath, and then I’ll add Adam Scott (+3), Henrik Stenson (+3), Charl Schwartzel (+3), Jason Day (+10), Bubba Watson (+4), Jimmy Walker (+6), and Danny Willett, who shot 81 and withdrew.
The guys that are gone have 18 majors between them.
I can think of three occasions of leaderboards that were equally unpromising. In 1969, all the best players left their clubs in the trunk of their cars, because when Sunday dawned on Champions Golf Club in Houston, Miller freaking Barber had a three-shot lead on Orville Moody and a four-shot lead on Deane Beman and Bunky Henry.
Bunky sounds like something your daughter would name her pet rabbit.
Actually, the most interesting thing to happen at the ’69 Open was when Bob Drum of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Dan Jenkins, at the time with SI, got in a hotel elevator and a hooker followed them in. The girl turns to Drum and says, “Hey baby, for $400 I’ll do whatever you want.” Drum smiles back and asks, “Oh good. Can you write a lead, column and sidebar by 8 a.m.?”
Then, in 1975, Medinah hosted the “Dry Cleaner Open.” Some huge union of dry cleaners was having a boisterous protest outside the club, while the metaphoric dry cleaners of the PGA Tour were battling it out fr the trophy inside the grounds. As Championship Sunday dawned, Frank Beard held a three-shot lead over Pat Fitzsimmons and Tom Watson, while Lou Graham, Peter Oosterhuis, Joe Inman, Hubert Green and Jay Haas lurked. Jack Nicklaus did his best to try to steal the tournament and save the show from being the stinkburger it had been all week, but his patented Sunday charge to the top of the leaderboard from miles back was halted when he bogeyed the last three holes. Lou Graham won in a Monday playoff with John Mahaffey.
And then of course, who could forget thee 1985 U.S. Open? We were introduced to T.C. (Two-chip) Chen. Vying to be the first Asian winner of any major golf championship, he was slaughtering the field the whole week and started the final round two clear of Andy North and five and six shots clear respectively of Dave Barr and Rick Fehr. But after Chen infamously double-hit a chip shot and took a quadruple bogey eight, North eventually won by one stroke over Chen, Barr and Denis Watson, sparing us the agony of a four-way playoff of the PGA Tour's bit players.
What’s most shocking is that the best golfers in the world played so poorly even though a record number of players broke par. Fifty-four contestants are even par or better, and the 68 players remaining are within nine shots. The further issue is that the marquee players left not only have to make up the most strokes, they also have to leap frog the most players, and with the course set-up looking to become more diabolical as each day progresses, it will be tough to do anything other than tread water.
The USGA can’t make the course too easy after all...people are starting to joke that we might have ended up at nearby Brown Deer Park by mistake.
Moreover, Erin Hills was supposed to solve the USGA’s pesky problem of not having a solid Midwest venue they could return to over and over again. The reference people should be making isn’t Brown Deer, but Olympia Fields. You’ll recall when Jim Furyk won there in 2003, he tied or broke several records and would have broken the all-time scoring record, but he double bogeyed the 72nd hole. We don’t go back to Olympia because it’s too easy. That’s why Baltusrol, Medinah and Atlanta Athletic Club are gone too.
The USGA didn’t want a repeat of Olympia Field, or Medinah for that matter – that’s why we’re at Erin Hills in the first place. Erin Hills has one job to do. If a screwball number gets posted by a journeyman winner, it may be time to go back to Oakland Hills, long overdue for a return to the Open rota.
There are a few interesting stories among the players who are left. Ernie Els still in contention 23 years after winning his first U.S. Open is impressive. Does he ever age? Fiery Patrick Reed will spice things up for the telecast if he plays well. Jordan Spieth is still within eight shots, and it’s only Saturday. The aforementioned Lou Graham came from 11 back after 36 holes to win at Medinah. Still, Jordan has to leapfrog 33 guys, a tall order when you know set-up will be brutal. And of course if they win, either Texas A&M's Cameron Champ or Longhorn Scottie Scheffler would become the first amateur to win the U.S. Open since Johnny Goodman did it in 1933 at North Shore, right here in Milwaukee.
So get ready for a playoff between Si Woo Kim and Hideki Mastuyama. Forget playing hooky to watch that, everyone will race to get to the office instead. Or perhaps it will be a three-way with Kevin Na. God help us if Kevin Na is winning. Somebody else might die of “natural causes” before he hits the ball.
So as we turn towards moving day, let’s hope they mve like they did at the Masters this year. That leader board had a lot of flotsam and jetsam too, but it cleared on Saturday, and we had an epic finish. The USGA would be wise to take a page from the Masters’ book and let them play golf today. More birdies means more excitement. Lord knows, we’re going to need it.